09 July 1999

Brum

Birmingham is a grey and dreary city: its colour, its weather, its accent. An industrial dream. A colleague of mine from the former East Germany told me how Birmingham was the first place in Britain she visited when the Wall came down; how, with a Masters in English, she was unable to understand the bus conductor. And the sun does of course shine, does occasionally break through the monotony of clouds, but somehow it only serves to remind of the grey and dreary default. If there is such a thing as grey and dreary sunlight, it is in Birmingham. And it is the rain that I remember more than anything else, rain lashing against the street, thunder rocking the sky, and my grandfather’s story that thunder is the anger of the god Thor throwing his great war-hammer.

Birmingham; what is there to remember about Birmingham? The Bull Ring shopping centre, huge, fabulous and imposing to a child of six. The stepfather’s rumours of racist violence, and my wariness when the next group of black youths passed by, half-thinking that they must all be concealing knives. Rumours which must have had some general effect, for  one primary school gym lesson, with no apparent reason and no apparent understanding of what the words I was speaking really meant, instructed a girl to “go back where you came from, you black monkey,” and was made to stand in the corner until the end of the lesson. Standing there, I had the opportunity to consider the words a little more carefully, at least in the manner of an eight-year old, and if I didn't fully comprehend their significance, I recognised that I was embarrassed at having to stand in the corner, that I should put brain in gear first. I resolved a childish resolution to never say anything of the like again, and never did.

But a young boy is impressionable, even when his trust in a stepfather falls somewhat short of conviction. My younger brother had summed up that latent antipathy with more eloquence and less introspection than I ever could, bellowing with startling frequency “Don’t want you, want my mommy”. It became a kind of leitmotiv for my brother, and even when he grew out of saying it at every possible opportunity, it was taken up by the very object of his discontent, who would tease my brother with it whenever either was in a bad mood. And both found ample opportunities for bad moods.

The stepfather had grown up in Birmingham, was a resident through and through, born on a council estate just before the end of the war and narrowly escaping military service when it was abolished in the sixties. He had witnessed a great influx of cultural diversity and was given to that platitudinous form of racism which, in one breath, would agree wholeheartedly with Enoch Powell and then enthusiastically and in fine storyteller-style describe the Sikh weddings he'd attended - the magnificent dress, the bountiful food, the exotic atmosphere. And the impressionable child absorbs all this, as everything else, unequipped to find his way in this morass of opinion; he plunges down a path, leaps before he is able to look: he insults a girl, and is made to stand in the corner until the end of the lesson. His resolution is passed and held, but how can one unabsorb an attitude? The ambiguous anxiety remains, easily discarded on the occasional moment when it arises fleetingly; but remain it does.

Trouble at school: for painting my face, to the hilarity of my classmates; made to stand in the corner again, this time outside the staff room still paint-covered, the teachers barely containing their laughter; younger, in nursery, for daubing fingerprints of shit all over the toilet wall, for no reason other than there seemed an inexhaustible supply. Success: still in nursery, discovering that it was a teacher’s birthday, and asking my mother for a little money during lunch hour in order to buy some small gift with a couple of classmates; my mother giving me a spider plant, and the teacher being overwhelmed: she loved spider plants, but her cat had eaten the last one.

Little memories: a family who were apparently related to Newton, but were too embarrassed by the name and used a different one. The Sunday School over the road, which my brother and I attended without much conviction, just as our mother sent us there without much conviction, because it was the proper thing to do. A school questionnaire, about what type of house one lived in; absorbing a little of my mother’s attitude, I decided on semi-detached, though really it was only the end of a terrace. A little black cat who came to stay which we called Sweep, and eventually responded to his name; shortly afterwards it was discovered that he actually lived just up the road with an old lady, but he’d decided to move out and she was worried sick about him. A border collie called Shelly, whom we adored but had to leave because we were allergic to her beautiful long hair. The little corner shop at the other end of the road (we lived on the next corner down) and little twopence sweets, chews with sherbet inside them. Helping out on the stepfather’s milkround, and being given two shining new twenty-pence pieces in a matchbox as payment, and being overjoyed.

And there's the odd photograph: one of me in a new cub-scout uniform, next to the house, the Sunday School building behind, my brother’s foot prominently entering the picture on the right in an attempt to be noticed. Another: younger, sat in a chair, clutching a large torch, long red curls cascading over my shoulders, looking distinctly girlish. But then, long hair was the fashion at the time.

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